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How the Seattle Sounders contained Carlos Vela

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The strategy was incredibly simple, and effective.

MLS: MLS Cup Conference Finals-Seattle Sounders FC at Los Angeles FC Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Sounders may want to send a fruit basket to 22 MLS teams as a gesture of thanks for helping them neutralize Carlos Vela in the Western Conference Final on Tuesday.

Los Angeles Football Club’s superstar had the best season in MLS history, scoring 34 goals and 15 assists in regular-season play, 38 goals across all competitions, and his dual-threat abilities made him dangerous as both a scorer and playmaker throughout the 2019 season.

So how did the Sounders stop him? They were assertive in double- and triple-teaming Vela throughout the playoff clash, and it worked. Vela didn’t get on the board, and the Sounders won 3-1.

You may think, wait, all the Sounders did was double-team Vela? It’s not all they did, but it was the most persistent way of stopping him, and it worked.

Why did it work? It’s because remarkably few times during the season did any other opponents opt to do this most simple of defensive schemes.

On one level, you can understand the logic: In soccer, it’s difficult to justify man-marking one player with multiple defenders. Even if the player targeted is marked out of the game, if the supporting pieces around them are strong enough, those other players can sink you. And with Diego Rossi an above-average second option and nearly every player on the field capable of scoring for LAFC, as they romped to tie a long-standing league record of 85 goals scored on the season, it’s a real dilemma.

Still, it’s quite striking that nearly every LAFC opponent in MLS opted to put one man on Vela (sometimes not even that!) and aim for good zone defending, some good luck and see what happens. It...was not effective! LAFC only lost six games all season!

I really expected Vela to become man-marked much more overtly around May, when he was just going nuts on opposing teams. Yes, teams could play into LAFC’s hands with their alternative options, but the decision, seemingly just sitting there, right in front of them!, to make Vela nothing more than a decoy went almost totally unchallenged. Instead, teams most often used one man on Vela or tried to keep him close at hand and just collapse on him when he got on the ball. Given his ability to dribble, pass and shoot through traffic, that wasn’t often very effective.

I’m not someone to revel in counterfactuals — for one thing, they can’t be proven — but I would imagine that with teams doing what the Sounders did a little more often in 2019, LAFC would have been stymied more and a few wins would have become draws or losses. That’s not to say that Vela could not have escaped a double- or triple-team; he’s been killer in transition and it would have been difficult to give him no options on counters. Seeing that more often would have given Vela and LAFC more opportunities to figure out how to break the “box” defense, and again, that’s one way that the rest of MLS’s lack of using this relatively simple option played right into the Sounders’ hands. If Vela had had more experience playing against multiple man-markers, he might have had the ability to cope better in the biggest game of the season.

In the end, the Sounders “sprung” the simplest surprise, and it worked like gangbusters. Credit to Seattle for having the ability on both sides of the ball to best LAFC on the night. After all, LAFC had the lead at one point and if Seattle hadn’t been able to score time and again, bottling up Vela would have been moot. But the Sounders deployed this one simple trick and wouldn’t you know it, it was the most effective strategy.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!